Bridesmaids changed the way Hollywood thinks about women and comedy. There’s no longer the misconception that female audiences want their female-led comedies to be solely fluffy, romantic ones. Breaking news: Women like raunchy, R-rated comedies too. The sensibility of the raunchy comedy as a subgenre, however, formed mainly along the interests and under the creative control of men. Ideally, an R-rated comedy (male or female-centric) has a healthy balance of both joke and emotion, but — as Bridesmaids proved — female-centric comedies need to nail the emotion of the narrative if they’re going to fly with female audiences.
Gernally, women are expected to read, understand, and prioritize emotions, which means we tend to experience the world in a different way. This is a huge generalization, of course, but it is not without merit: The female viewer can smell a poorly-articulated emotional beat from a mile away. Enter Rough Night…
Boasting Broad City writers and a killer cast that includes Scarlett Johansson and Kate McKinnon, Rough Night seemed set up for success. Unfortunately, the R-rated comedy about a group of college friends heading to Miami for a bachelorette weekend isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Is Rough Night a raunchy comedy about female friends? Or does it skew more towards black humor with its manslaughter shenanigans? The film prioritizes the comedic elements of the latter at the expense of the character-driven emotion of the former.
Rough Night enjoys an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its talented cast: Johansson stars as Jess, an aspiring Senator who doesn’t have time for her female friends and who doesn’t really want to attend her own bachelorette party. McKinnon plays Pippa, Jess’ sweet-natured Australian friend, a newcomer to the group and the country whose every stereotype about America seems to be confirmed during the course of her visit.
Ilana Glazer plays Frankie, a full-time activist who really isn’t supposed to cross state borders. Zoe Kravitz is on-hand as Blair, a polished New Yorker who is going through a messy custody battle. (Refreshingly, Frankie and Blair are casually queer in a way we hardly ever get to see in Hollywood with their simmering sexual tension treated the same as a heteronormative dynamic would be.)
Lastly, we have Jillian Bell as Alice, a lonely schoolteacher who is throwing all of her hopes and dreams onto the bachelorette weekend she has planned. Rough Night is Bridesmaids if Maya Rudolph played the main character rather than Kristen Wiig — which means that the friendship between Jess and Alice is the most important one of the film.
Alas, the script doesn’t put in the work to sell the central dynamic as one worth saving. Without the Mess-Of-A-Best-Friend Character as the central protagonist (like she is in Bridesmaids), the film flounders. Alice isn’t very likeable, which might not be a problem if the movie didn’t seem to think she is much more relatably flawed than she is. (It would have helped if we could have seen Alice interact with her mother, who is one of the most important relationships in her life.) Instead, Alice comes off as manipulative and mean, particuarly to poor, sweet Pippa. The script is missing any real empathy toward her character that could have been a major benefit.
Furthermore, for most of the film, Jess doesn’t seem overly invested in saving her friendship with Alice, which makes it hard for the viewer to care. That being said, Johansson knows how to invest in a character moment and, when the script calls for it, she gives it her all. (Again, this cast is this film’s saving grace.)
In general, this movie does female friendship really well — something that cannot be said for most of cinema and that hints at the emotion-conscious comedy that could have been if the script better supported it. Rather than explicitly spelling out the complicated interpersonal dynamics of the group, most of it is told through what is not said — shared looks or tense silences, or Alice’s thinly-veiled passive agression. It’s in these moments the film’s female writer/director Lucia Aniello becomes apparent and the talents and chemistry of the cast truly shine, making for a silver lining in anotherwise uneven movie.
Is Rough Night funny? It has its laughs, but not all of the jokes land. As is often the case with R-rated comedies looking to push the envelope, some topics are treated as jokes that aren’t all that funny. (For example, there is an extremely uncomfortable sexual coercion scene that is played for laughs.) Most of Rough Night‘s jokes are concept-based rather than character-driven, which means, when they fall flat, they take away from the momentum of the film without giving anything back.
This movie might be enjoyable with a group of friends as an excuse to hang out, but it’ll never succeed as the explicit point of the outing. Embrace the movie’s central theme — the importance of nurturing your most important friendships into adulthood — and you may just have an enjoyable evening. If you’re a cinephile looking for a must-see film, however, give Rough Night a pass.